BOSTON, Mass. — By the time Emily Colson’s son Max was born, she’d already lived through plenty of adversity.
The youngest child of Chuck Colson, known for his part in the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon, her grounding years involved an imprisoned father and her parents’ divorce. But she’d also witnessed plenty of perseverance, in her father’s conversion, for one.
“He founded a prison ministry 40 years ago, the largest in the world,” Colson says, noting that her dad was “a dynamo” of a man.
Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the ultimate challenge of her life — mothering her only child, diagnosed with a severe form of autism, even as her own marriage was dissolving.
Now an acclaimed author, Colson will share her story in Fargo on Friday, Oct. 26, and Saturday, Oct. 27, during the annual Rest & Rejuv event.
Colson’s father, who passed away six years ago, was among her most ardent encouragers, she says.
“What an extraordinary experience it was to watch my dad, who had been so vocal about the sanctity of human life and speaking up for those without a voice … interact (with Max),” she notes. “He would say that the person who taught him and influenced him the most in life was not someone from the halls of power at the White House or one of the great theologians, but his grandson who struggled with autism. He was my dad’s teacher.”
Message of hope
In the earliest days of her mothering journey, however, Colson found herself isolated and despairing.
“When Max was 9, I ended up, every night, sitting in a rocking chair staring at the wall,” she says. “I was so numb. I didn’t know how we were going to survive.”
But she was determined not to give up. “I thought about a Scripture passage from John 10:10, where Jesus said, ‘I have come that they may have life, and to the full’ — an abundant life,” Colson says. “I made a bold decision that we weren’t going to live in isolation anymore.”
The results were, at first, “disastrous,” she says, and yet, “In the midst of that, people began to step into our messy lives and show kindness they didn’t even realize they were capable of.”
Max started to impact people all around him in positive ways, Colson says, leading her to write a book about their experiences, “Dancing With Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free.” Colson will speak in Fargo later this month as part of the annual Rest & Rejuv event sponsored by the Inclusion Ministry Network, a nondenominational organization, at Hope Lutheran Church’s north Fargo campus.
While the event mainly offers a reprieve for mothers of special-needs children, Colson says her talk on Oct. 26 is open to the public, and she hopes many will attend.
“It’s really a broad message … of the hope we can have in the midst of whatever our struggles are,” she says.
Autism alone will touch everyone, she says. When Max was diagnosed, the incidence of an autism diagnosis was 1 in every 10,000; recently the numbers have surged to 1 in every 59 people.
“We don’t have answers (why), but we need a response,” she says. “We need the community to come around us and be present in our lives.”
Karen Swanson, who has been part of the local event since its inception 12 years ago, has two adult sons with autism, and says attending church can be one of the biggest obstacles for families of special-needs children. “Around 95 percent don’t go to church,” she says.
The event offers inspiration, connections and support.
“We have the same types of funny stories, and we get each other in a much bigger way,” Swanson says, adding that massages, motivational talks, crafts, door prizes and yummy food are infused into the day. “We like to provide a scenario that blesses moms and helps them get away from the constant strain of caregiving.”
Karen Urlacher, who also has an adult son with autism, says she’s grateful for her many years of being involved.
“When Kevin was first diagnosed, I felt alone. I didn’t know where to start getting help,” she says. “When you get a diagnosis like this, a lot of people go through a grieving process; it’s the death of a dream.”
But, as she and others have found, “God can bring beauty out of ashes. He’s given us new dreams, new things that never would have been possible had Kevin not had autism.”
In the end, her family’s journey, though difficult, has strengthened all their faith, Urlacher says.
“When you go through something hard, you have to rely on God even more,” she says.
She often finds herself leaning on Psalm 68:19, she says: “Thanks be to God, who daily bears our burdens.”
“We don’t have to worry about the future; just today.”
If you go
What: 12th annual Rest & Rejuv
When: 7 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, (open to the public) and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27
Where: Hope Lutheran Church north campus, 2900 Broadway N., Fargo
Info: $5 suggested donation. Saturday registration is requested by contacting Cindy at 701-429-1724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Oct. 13, 2018.]